Syrian Christian refugees feel fortunate to have fled Islamic State

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As Islamic State militants closed in on her village, Asmar Jumaa, an Assyrian Christian, couldn’t shake a terrifying thought.”I remembered what they did to the Yazidi girls,” said Jumaa, 22, recalling the fate of thousands of female adherents of…
As Islamic State militants closed in on her village, Asmar Jumaa, an Assyrian Christian, couldn’t shake a terrifying thought.

“I remembered what they did to the Yazidi girls,” said Jumaa, 22, recalling the fate of thousands of female adherents of the ancient sect kidnapped final summer when the Sunni Muslim extremists swept through northern Iraq. “I didn’t want that to happen to us.”

She and eight loved ones members, mainly girls, were among numerous thousand Assyrian Christians who fled in late February as the militants sophisticated into dozens of largely Christian villages along the Khabur River in eastern Syria.

Hundreds of the Christians had been taken prisoner and presumably remain captive, activists say, such as relatives of Jumaa. A few prisoners have been released, but the fate of most remains unclear, regardless of pleas on their behalf by Assyrian diaspora communities from Stockholm to Beirut to California. Activists worry that some male captives may well have been killed and the ladies held as sex slaves.

Despite the fact that the kidnappings created worldwide headlines, the plight of a number of thousand who managed to escape hasn’t drawn a lot notice in a area that has lately observed huge displacements, including the more than 500,000 Yazidis and Christians who fled the Islamic State rampage in the summer.

As the Syrian civil war enters its fifth year, practically half of the folks in the nation have fled their residences, a single of the largest upheavals of humanity considering the fact that Globe War II.

More than three million Syrians are refugees in other countries, and an additional 7 million are displaced in Syria, according to United Nations figures.

The Christians who fled the isolated Khabur riverside settlements of eastern Syria final month seem to be commonly much better off than most. Usually, they have located shelter in tightknit Assyrian communities in northern Iraq, Lebanon and in Kurdish-controlled regions of northeastern Syria’s Hasakah province. Living with kin is preferable to the gloomy, overcrowded refugee camps that now dot the region. The story of their rapid flight has become numbingly familiar, a single chapter in a sweeping narrative of tumult and dislocation.

On Feb. 22, Islamic State seized various villages along the Khabur River. Christian self-defense home guards with rifles were no match for the heavily armed Sunni militants. The subsequent day, Kurdish militiamen — archenemies of Islamic State — coordinated the evacuation of Tel Bas, the Jumaa family’s household village, and nearby settlements and towns.

The escapees face an uncertain future. Like so quite a few war refugees, they don’t know whether or not they can ever return home. Numerous hope to emigrate overseas.

“Look, we’ve had enough of Daesh and the others,” stated Kenyas Jumaa, father of Asmar and nine other youngsters, employing an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “How can we be confident we can ever be protected from them? Even right here in Iraq.”

Quite a few of the Assyrians in the Khabur River region are descendants of Christians who fled in the 1930s to Syria, then below French mandate, after the massacre of hundreds of coreligionists by Arab and Kurdish Muslims in northern Iraq. A doleful history is in a sense coming full cycle, albeit with new protagonists and a varied geopolitical backdrop.

In the present crisis, the Jumaas sooner or later produced their way into Iraq across the Tigris, following the path of tens of thousands of Yazidis who had fled the Sinjar mountains in the summer time. 1 of Kenyas Jumaa’s daughters who moved to Sheikhan in northern Iraq previously welcomed her kin.

Sheikhan is a religiously mixed town whose skyline features the minarets of mosques, the crosses of Christian churches and the conical temples of the Yazidi sect, the majority here. The town, northeast of Islamic State-controlled Mosul, was largely abandoned in August as the militants sophisticated to within ten miles or so. U.S.-led bombing helped push back the extremists most residents of Sheikhan have because returned. Nevertheless, Islamic State’s lines stay only about 20 miles away.

Despite their plight, the Jumaas say they really feel incredibly fortunate.

“I’m fine as extended as I am collectively with my wife and household,” stated Kenyas Jumaa, flashing a smile.

Like so many Syrians, the extended Jumaa loved ones is now scattered across the globe: Kenyas Jumaa has a daughter in Sweden and brothers in Lebanon, Holland, Canada, New Zealand and Arizona.

1 of the family members members who fled here last month was Kenyas Jumaa’s mother, Esther Zaya Hormez, 82. She had been living with a son in the United States but returned to Syria final year due to the fact she feared for Kenyas Jumaa’s fate, the family members said.

“I dreamed he had been kidnapped by Nusra Front,” she explained, referring to Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, which runs a profitable kidnapping-for-ransom side enterprise, frequently targeting Christians, and has a robust presence in eastern Syria.

Kenyas Jumaa chuckled at the matriarch’s concern. “I was generally her preferred,” he explained.

Another one of his daughters, Sanaa, left her property in Syria’s Tabqa area when Al Nusra Front overran the area two years ago. “They told us as Christians, we could not remain,” stated Sanaa Jumaa, who has an 8-year-old daughter, Jessica.

She and her household moved to the Jumaas’ household in Tel Bas, only to flee again final month. The Syrian war has noticed several areas pass by way of successive control of numerous armed bands.

What occurred to Syria is a fantastic imponderable, the Jumaas said: how a nation where so numerous groups lived in relative harmony for decades has abruptly succumbed to a catastrophic sectarian calculus. Family members take no overt position on the conflict, only bemoaning how a toxic brew of religion and politics brought ruin to a string of Khabur River towns that extended functioned as a sleepy, idyllic refuge, far removed from the tumult sweeping much of the Middle East.

Somehow the towns became the terrain of black-clad militants who burn churches, kidnap and kill “infidels,” and grab “wives” at will from among the vanquished masses.

“Politics is a dirty factor,” said Asmar Jumaa, who was an English literature student in Syria and now contemplates a future with couple of clear horizons. “You can not comprehend it, no matter how challenging you try.”

Particular correspondents Nabih Bulos and Kamiran Sadoun contributed to this report.

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